Babinsky, Gnoyensky (1904 – 2004). 2: Belaya Tserkov; Kharkov; Trade Union

Babinsky, Gnoyensky (1904 – 2004). 2: Belaya Tserkov; Kharkov; Trade Union

Rakhil Gnoyenskaya. Kharkov. Year 1934.

Rakhil Gnoyenskaya. Kharkov. Year 1934.

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Belaya Tserkov: Rakhil’s Childhood.

My mother was named Rukhel after her maternal great-grandmother. When her father came to register her birth, the gentile clerk enhanced the name to a more Russian-sounding Rukhlya. (See Recording of life events.) Admirers, teasing her nose-up-in-the-air attitude, addressed her as Rochelle or Shelya, for short. Most called her Rakhil but it was the affectionate Rakhilka that my father and her childhood friends used and that was etched on her gravestone next to the official name.

In her old age, Rakhil described her life as a pie cut into three slices: seven years of happiness, fifty-eight years of fear, and America.

Her father, my dédushka Bena, died in 1919 when she was seven. She claimed to remember well him and the contentment brought by his finger tracing her nose to make it tickle. Of course, there were days when Rakhil ate nothing; days when she had to hide in the cellar; scrofula (a form of tuberculosis affecting lymph nodes) caused her neck glands and her toes to swell; her relatives and landsleit did not survive the pogroms or the typhus – these bad things did not affect the sense of contentment.

Then Bena went to Kharkov to check on his pregnant sister. He was supposed to be back before Rakhil’s baby-sibling was due.

With time, the months after Bena’s departure fused into a single flash that cratered Rakhil’s world. She spent a lot of time with her Averbukh grandparents, Velvel and Sheina-Gitel, her uncle Leib and aunt Esther who were not much older than her.

Velvel sat over thick tomes studying day in and day out, oblivious to the presence of Rakhil or anybody else, except his son Leib. She disappointed him by learning to read late, at five-and-a-half, because she had not been under Sheina-Gitel’s tutelage. Rakhil was afraid of him and worshipped him. Her pride of being his grandchild – the grandchild of Velvel Shmerel’s! named after his mother! – never diminished. She was thrilled when her baby-brother Shmul was born. Within weeks, typhus struck. Rakhil was whisked away to her Averbukh grandparents.

The unpredictable mail service brought no news from Kharkov. Velvel prayed feverishly facing the wall, his eyes closed. Leib joined him sporadically; he had students to tutor at their homes. Esther brought in kindling and water. Sheina-Gitel kept the meager meals coming.

Then Rakhil’s late uncle Kutsya’s widow Khaya who was taking care of Polina brought over a letter from Kharkov that Polina was too sick to open. Sheina-Gitel read it and wailed. She lowered herself to the floor to sit shivah for Bena. She pulled bewildered Rakhil next to her, “Sitz, Rukhele, du bist ein yusim (sit, Rukhele, you are an orphan.)” These were the first words addressed to her in weeks.

Polina’s fever broke; when told that she had no husband or son she screamed so loud and so long that Khaya feared her veins would burst. Soon Polina came to live with her parents. She brought a few bundles with clothing. She left her house unlocked never to return.

Rakhil was sure that had she gone back to her house, she would have found her father there waiting for her. The finality of his disappearance did not sink in.

The label of orphan implied assurance of support – helping an orphan was a great mitzvah – but it awakened life-long determination in her to prove that she did not need any. Sheina-Gitel ascribed Rakhil’s defiance to the inflexibility and sense of superiority inherited from Velvel.

The life in Rakhil’s beloved bled-out half-deserted Belaya Tserkov slowly reached a new normalcy. Pogroms stopped. Hunger persisted. In a herd of friends, she chased the first car ever driven through the town in a cloud of dust. She remembered the exhilaration of that chase all her life. But she could not wait to see the capital city of Kharkov, where, her Gnoyensky family wrote, cars were at least as common as horse-drawn carriages.

Kharkov: Rakhil’s Youth.

At fourteen, after the seventh grade, Rakhil left Belaya Tserkov for Kharkov to enroll in a technicum, the quickest way to get a profession. She stayed with her Gnoyensky grandmother Bosya, aunt Babele, and uncle Grisha surrounded by faces so much like her father’s and her own. Bosya waited on her hand and foot.

Belonging to the meshchane class made Rakhil a second-class citizen. Grisha pulled strings and greased palms to ensure her acceptance to a technicum to become a seamstress, a profession for which she exhibited neither ability nor interest. A few more strings – and she was transferred to a new garment-industry-bookkeeping program. Noticing how her tall, raven-haired, raven-eyed, willful niece turned heads, Babele explored a shidduch for her. Rakhil refused the man, sight unseen. Her goal was to support her mother and grandmother in Belaya Tserkov, not become a dependent.

To get a job after graduation, Rakhil had to be a union member. To become a union member, she had to be employed. Union membership level in the Soviet Union was to be one hundred percent. Strings and bribes generated a piece of paper, signed and stamped, that confirmed her fictitious employment. On the strength of that document, Rakhil was accepted into the trade union. Then she found a real job.

It was a hungry time, an era that gave rise to a joke that remained timely for many decades: two men see empty shelves in a store and a sign “Do not spit. The fine is three rubles;” one of the men tells the other, “Spit, buddy, it’s my treat.”

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